North of Hope, first published in 1990, consists of two parts.  The first part, ending with Libby driving away and leaving Frank at the seminary, is autobiographical; the rest of the book is almost entirely imagined. 

The high school experiences of Frank Healy, my protagonist, were much like my own.  Although I, unlike Frank, had both parents well into my fifties and I did not aspire to the priesthood, I, too, was an only child, and very shy of girls.  I find this entry in my journal, dated January 1. 1987:

”I hope to God this novel works out.  I can see what sort of boy Frank has become.  He is taught to venerate women the way his father venerates the memory of his mother, and there are no women in his life who he knows well enough to see them as ordinary mortals.   Maybe if he (and I) had had sisters, we’d have been more realistic in our relations with women.”

And again:

 “….To flesh out the tale, I will have to add scenes from my memories of Plainview [the Minnesota town where I grew up], such as Frank candling eggs [as I used to do in my father’s grocery store], Frank at his piano lesson, Frank in the cemetery at a military funeral, and Frank serving Mass for his old pastor [as I did, year after year, for old Father O’Connor].”

When Alice Downie moves to town, [I later changed her name to Libby Girard] Frank falls immediately in love with her.”  The girl in my life was named Mary, and I too was devastated when, in the middle of our senior year, she told me she was quitting school to marry her high school sweetheart.

I have been told by readers that in order to write North of Hope, surely I must have been a priest or at least studied in a seminary.  But the fact is that I never seriously considered the priesthood as a vocation--except perhaps for one day toward the end of my senior year in high school.  It was the day all of us Catholics were excused from school to attend a retreat at our parish church.  The visiting retreat master turned out to be a very personable and articulate young man who was easy to admire and I imagined myself a priest like him. The retreat ended with Mass, which I served for the priest, and later, in the sacristy as we hung up our vestments, he asked me if I was a senior. I said yes.  He said I must always say “Yes, Father.”  Then he asked me if I’d planned yet where I’d go to college. I said no, and he slapped me hard across face because I didn’t say, “No, Father.” There ended my short-lived priestly intentions.

The answer to the question, “How do you, if not a priest, know so much about Frank Healy’s profession?” is simply that all my life I’ve been a priest-watcher.  Priests interest me because they straddle two worlds.  Religious ministry is the only line of work I know of where the person must keep one foot in this life and the other in the next. 

This was a difficult book to write.  It was my only book that necessitated a wall chart to keep track of the events of the plot.   Whereas most books take me two years to write, this one took me three.  Luckily I had a very good editor at Ballantine as I worked through it.  His name was Bob Wyatt, and I have since regrettably fallen out of touch with him.  I recall telephoning him one day as I worked on Libby’s suicide attempt and asking, “Can you have a love story where the lovers don’t go to bed together?”  There was a long pause and then he said, “I don’t know,” which I considered the perfect answer, because it meant that I was free to go ahead and try it.

When the book finally appeared in the fall of 1990, the reviews and reader reaction were almost entirely positive.  Richard Russo, in the New York Times Book Review said, “Perhaps it will not be surprising if Hassler’s brooding and meditative new novel makes him the household name he deserves to be.”  The National Catholic Reporter said the novel “is not about religious repression but the possibility of redemption…. The book is a masterpiece.” 

One of the first reactions from general readers came by letter from a priest serving a small parish far north in the Yukon.  He said that he, like Father Frank Healy, had been discouraged and suffering from burnout--or his “big leak” as Father Healy called it-- and the book had helped him recover.  That letter, and others like it that followed, made the effort seem well worthwhile.


Visit Loyola Books to order your copy.



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